Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A Relevant Church Must Speak
distributed 1/26/18 - ©2018

I was the guest preacher at a church in Denver last Sunday, and I was delighted by the opening words from the pastor.

Along with the usual greetings, he asked people to raise their hands if they had attended the Denver Women's March the day before. Quite a few hands went up, and he did a quick count of those who were not already on his list. "That makes 47 from this church who took part!" he announced. A wave of applause ran through the congregation.

The church is "mid-sized," so a very sizeable percentage of the members had turned out to join the 50,000 marching around the state capitol. It was great to see this congregation celebrate the civic engagement and political witness of its people.

Not all churches are that relevant, though, and that is a real problem -- both for the church and for our society.

I remembered a startling email that I received from a friend just a year ago. She was responding to my Eco-Justice Notes from a week after the 2017 inauguration. I had lifted as good news the many examples of protest and activism from the first week of this new administration, including the first Women's March. "As we settle in for a long stretch of political and social witness, I invite you to look at good news this week, and remember the evidence of a strong and committed movement in favor of civil rights and environmental care."

The email provided a sobering reality check about churches being a part of that movement. She wrote:

On December 12, 2015, 196 countries adopted the first-ever global climate agreement. The next day my sister's minister gave a sermon on Joy, and didn't mention it. On January 21, 2017, millions of people around the world, including 100,000 in Denver, marched for women's rights, human rights, equality, social justice, and climate justice. I asked my sister what her minister said about the march. He didn't mention it and it wasn't a topic of conversation during social hour.

From my perspective, when such major events are not even mentioned in worship, and when they are not talked about in fellowship times, the church reveals that it is irrelevant. The silence suggests some combination of three critical problems.

(1) The first, of course, is that pastors and congregations are scared of conflict. If there are strongly differing opinions within the membership, nothing is said that might provoke an argument. In most "purple" congregations with a mix of political affiliations, this approach means that any topic of importance to the members and the community will never be named. The church will never even acknowledge most of the issues that are in the headlines.

(2) The second reason for silence deals with a deeper flaw in the church. Big and complicated issues may not be addressed because church leaders don't have a clear sense of what faith and ethics have to say. A conventional and acculturated Christianity may not have either a bold prophetic critique or a genuine word of hope that speaks to today's world. Fifteen years ago, I wrote:

Therein lies a great danger for the pastors and preachers of this world. If we invite our folk to delve deeply into the Advent disciplines, if we call upon them to confront the demons within and the threats out there, then we'd better have a message of hope and salvation that can handle what they find. ... If we call upon the members of our churches to wrestle with Advent, then we have a responsibility to have a genuine proclamation that they will recognize as good news.

Pastors may know that the issues are important, but not know what to say. Churches may not know what to say about the climate crisis when it challenges our notions of progress, or the belief that God is always in control. Pastors may fear preaching or praying about racial justice when our own tradition's "doctrine of discovery" is at the heart of the problem. This kind of silence reveals a church without an adequate or relevant theology.

(3) The third problem isn't a fear of conflict, or theological uncertainty. Churches may be silent on issues of the day precisely because of their theological perspective. Their belief system may say that issues of social justice or ecological health don't belong in church. If the good news of Christianity is all about individual salvation, then matters of this world are a distraction. The Paris Agreement or the Women's March or health care or taxation won't be named because they have nothing to do with the church's privatized faith or ethics. Needless to say, that form of Christianity is a complete contradiction of the faith perspectives that inform Eco-Justice Ministries.

There are many reasons why churches don't speak up about important issues. Whatever informs that silence, though, the message that is communicated is the same. A young woman that I spoke with many years ago put it clearly.

I've always been involved in the church, and I've always cared deeply for the environment. But I never heard the church talk about the environment, so I thought I was wrong.

I thought I was wrong. When churches -- or the media, or our friends -- don't mention the things we care about, we can come to believe that we're wrong in our concern.

In the language of communication theory, this sort of silence is called "disconfirmation." Failing to mention something is a way of saying that the issue isn't even important enough to talk about. It is so trivial that there's no value in voicing disagreements.

When churches are silent on matters of importance, it is a crisis for the church and for our society.

It is a crisis for the church because we're not ministering to our congregations. We're not acknowledging the causes where members are passionate. We're not wrestling with fresh theological questions to understand how faith is meaningful in today's world. We're making it clear that churches don't have anything of real value to offer beside fellowship, traditions and platitudes. No wonder church membership is in a rapid decline.

Religious silence is a crisis for the society because faith perspective are an essential contrast to the values and assumptions that are taking the planet into crisis. In his 2015 encyclical, Pope Francis insists that voices of faith must be part of a "new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet." Without those religious values, he fears that "particular interests or ideologies" will prejudice the common good. If principles of faith are not part of that moral dialogue -- either because they have been silenced, or because they have not bothered to speak up -- then God's creation is at ever-increasing risk.

Of course it is easier for faith leaders to speak up when there's a strong consensus among their membership. That was clearly the case at the church I visited last week, where a quarter of the members joined the march.

But even where the topics are controversial, pastors and faith leaders need to break the silence. Imagine a sermon or a prayer or a class that starts with a confessional word. "In this church, there are strongly held opinions on many sides of this issue. We don't agree on what our faith might say is good and right. But we do seem to agree that the issue is very important. We do seem to agree that our faith should have guidance for us on these big questions. So let us pray that we might be open to God's guidance. Let us pray that we might have civil and honest conversations. Even if we can't agree on where to stand, let us never pretend that these hard issues don't belong in church."

If your church is speaking up and acting on important issues, celebrate that. Name the numbers who march, and the people who call Congress, and the people who are working to do good. Let the whole congregation rejoice about this shared witness.

And if your church has not been speaking up, look for the reasons. Is it fear of conflict, or theological confusion, or an other-worldly theology? Do what you can to help the church toward engagement -- or look for another church where faith and today's issues are in regular conversation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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